Woonsocket High School athletic director George Nasuti feels a common bond with his colleagues at other city schools in Rhode Island, in places like Pawtucket, Central Falls and Providence. He knows the budget restraints that ADs in those cities deal with, and can easily relate to the student-athletes and the economic realities many of them face during the school year.
“You look at the city schools in Rhode Island and there are periods of success for some teams,” Nasuti, a Woonsocket native, was saying on Monday morning. “We went through a good cycle of athletes here for a few years but now it seems like we’re in a down cycle again.”
Nasuti, who also serves as Principal at Bernon Heights Elementary School, has been involved in sports all of his life. He graduated from Woonsocket High in 1979, has coached football, officiated all kinds of youth sporting events, and oversees the entire interscholastic league sports program at his alma mater.
“I’ve been athletic director for about 10 years,” he said. “Right now, I think we’re seeing a downward cycle in terms of dedication, commitment and loyalty from the student-athletes. I don’t know when it is going to break.”
Nasuti understands why youngsters are not as committed to team sports as they used to be.
“This is the steepest poverty level I have seen in my lifetime,” he said. “As educators, we are struggling even at the elementary school level. We keep taking things away from the kids. Jimmy Cannon just retired as director of the city’s Parks and Recreation department. I’m afraid the city may not replace him. That will make it tough to keep up recreation programs.”
On a day when President Obama said “we just can’t cut our way into growth,” Nasuti looks at the future of high school sports in Woonsocket and wonders what’s in store for the children currently attending elementary school, the kids whose faces he sees every day at school.
“You need to have youth sports programs in the city,” he said. “Right now, the poverty has driven many youngsters into a downward spiral. We have very few recreation programs in the city outside of what you see at the Boys & Girls Club, where Dennis Harmon and some other people are doing their best to get kids involved in basketball.
“Poverty hurts families in so many ways,” Nasuti added. “You don’t see parents driving their kids to Little League practice anymore. Little League baseball is trending down in Woonsocket. Bernon Little League has about four teams now. We used to have four Little League organizations in the city. Now we have two, with about eight or 10 teams total. I know for a fact that the people running Bernon Little League are doing all they can to keep the league in existence.”
As administrator of the high school sports program, Nasuti sees some success stories interspersed with the cold realities of today’s world. Woonsocket High’s girls basketball team captured a Division II and then a Division I state title in consecutive years back in 2009-10. George Coderre’s team is tied for third place in D-I this year but the cupboard seems bare. The Villa Novans may eventually have to drop out of Division I.
Woonsocket’s boys basketball team finished second in the state in Division I back in 2008, an incredible achievement that grows even more amazing as coach Kyle Ivey-Jones deals with a fall-off in talent and commitment from basketball players in the city.
The program was hurt badly by the loss of sophomore forward Mike LaPlante after the 2008 season. LaPlante transferred to St. Andrew’s School and finished out his high school career there, graduating without earning the college basketball scholarship he so desperately needed.
“I blame it on the AAU coach who made promises to Mike that he couldn’t keep,” Nasuti said. “They took Mike out of his element. He was a good student who would have continued to star in basketball and baseball for us. He could have been our next Tyrone Nared.”
Nared had starred in basketball at Woonsocket High earlier in the last decade. A 6-foot-8 forward, he enrolled at CCRI and eventually earned a full-time basketball scholarship to the University of Oregon.
Woonsocket’s success in boys basketball could be traced to a core group of student-athletes who met in elementary school and stuck together through their high school careers. That kind of continuity is really the only way a city school can contend for a state title against private schools who attract many of the elite athletes from around the state through institutional prestige and student aid programs.
City schools like Woonsocket, Shea and Tolman have to just keep waiting for the next wave of quality athletes to work their way up the ladder while battling the economic obstacles that block their road to success.
“The kids will start participating again when the teamstarts winning games,” Nasuti said. “That’s the way it works. We have some kids in the middle school who should boost the basketball program in a few years. We have a voluntary freshman program that is run by Chris Beauchamp. He’s doing a great job but one of the problems with basketball players is we lose a lot of them for disciplinary and academic reasons.”
As a former head football coach, and currently an assistant on Carnell Henderson’s staff, Nasuti has evolved into an “old school” administrator over the years, balancing tough love with compassion, encouraging student-athletes to play sports and stay committed to their teammates.
Henderson, an assistant principal at the high school, brings a unique set of skills to the head coaching job. With one of the best coaching staffs in the state, Woonsocket’s football program won only one league game this season after winning the Division II state title two years in a row.
The football program almost got bumped up to Division I for the 2012 season. Fortunately, South Kingstown volunteered to remain in the highest level, allowing Woonsocket to remain in Division II.
“I think we’re going to be okay in two or three years,” Nasuti said. “There are some good players in the youth league in the city. The Woonsocket Redskins organization has done a nice job of keeping the kids involved at the youth levels and I think that’s going to pay off again.”
From his vantage point as an elementary school principal, an athletic director and a native of Woonsocket, George Nasuti speaks with an insider’s understanding of a complex situation at the local high school.
“We can’t keep taking things away from the kids,” he reiterated.